A review of “Servanthood: Jesus’ Countercultural Call to Christian Leaders” by John C. Hutchison

Evaluation of a Theological Journal Article
Chris Noland

Evaluation of: Servanthood: Jesus’ Countercultural Call To Christian Leaders by John C. Hutchison. Bibliotheca Sacra 166 (January-March 2009):53-69


The title of this article: “Servanthood: Jesus’ Countercultural Call to Christian Leaders” really caught my attention. So many times we fail to realize that a true leader is to be a servant. The title seems to be very clear and concise. In the reading of the article you will find that the title is self-explanatory in that it gives a proper summary of what the entire article is about.


The thesis of the article is clearly stated within the introduction: “The thesis of this article is that Jesus’ call of His disciples to this model was one of the most difficult commands for them to understand and obey in their cultural situation.”
The conclusion that the author seeks to come to is vaguely identified in the last sentence of the introduction where he states: “Therefore becoming an effective leader then, much like today, demanded transformation of one’s view of leadership and authority.”
The author continues to explain how he will fulfill his purpose by stating: “Through an exposition of Mark 10:35-45 (with additional insight from Matthew 20:20-28 and Luke 22:24-30), one can see how difficult it would have been for Jesus’ original followers to accept servanthood as a prerequisite for positions of power and leadership in the Lord’s work.”
Overall, the author gives a clear and concise thesis that appropriately and effectively lays out his purpose in how he seeks to reach his conclusion.


The purpose of this article is clearly identified in one sentence in its introduction: “This article seeks to investigate the original cultural and historical setting of Jesus’ teaching on the subject.”
The problem of Christian leaderships failure to view themselves as servants and act out on servanthood is clearly addressed within the introduction.
There is also very good use of quotes, in particular at the very beginning citing a work published by former AT&T executive, Robert Greenleaf. The way the author shows how a secular author speaks of a leadership model that was originally taught by Jesus is a very intriguing way to introduce his thesis.
The author uses the term ‘servanthood’ both in his title and his introduction. It is clear as to what the author is referring to, however, we do not find a clear and concise definition of the term within the introduction itself.

Literature Review/Appeals to Literature

The meat of this article is very interesting. Unlike many theological articles it is not too ‘wordy’ nor is it too simple. The author uses a good mix of sources, citing various authors and also by comparing scripture with scripture. At one point, the author lays out a chart that illustrates the paradoxical nature of Jesus’ teaching on servanthood. The author also justifies his views by clearly explaining the meaning of the particular passages of scripture that he deals with. There is also a good use of quotes that helps to prove the authors views of servanthood. There is just the right amount of quotes used and the author never seems to overuse quotes from various sources. The author never really addresses opinions; he just simply states the facts and lays out for you a clear understanding of Jesus’ teaching on the subject of servanhood.

Format & Structure

This article has a format that flows in way that anyone can understand. The author clearly shows all of his citations in a correct manner. It appears that the author is using the Turabian form of writing.

Analysis and Conclusion

The conclusions of this article are clearly identified in the overall message of this article. There is a very good use of charts that compares scriptures related to Jesus’ teaching on stewardship. The conclusions of the article are appropriately justified as the author makes a clear explanation of his views throughout the article. The conclusion really brings it home and challenges you to become a servant-leader. The author also brings the attention to God as he explains that being such a leader can only be accomplished through the working of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. By the end of the article you see the reason for the authors thesis and the choice of his title.

Final Evaluation

This article was by far one of the most interesting theological writings that I have read. The issue of servanthood is one that I am afraid is not preached enough in our churches. This was an issue that was defiantly worth the author’s time and research. The article flowed in a way that was easy to understand and read yet at the same time it challenged your heart. I believe this article inspires future studies on the subject of servanthood and this is a work that I believe will have an impact on all who read it. This article is justifiably worthy of its publication.

BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 166 (January–March 2009): 53–69




John C. Hutchison

Many books have been written on the subject of leadership,
by Christian leaders and by secular leaders in corporate
business. Few topics have created as much discussion and
debate in both contexts as the concept of servant leadership. Since
Jesus and essentially every New Testament writer inextricably
associated Christian leaders with servanthood, one would expect to
find this subject discussed in Christian literature.1 One of the most
widely read books on the subject, however, is a collection of essays
published in 1977 by Robert Greenleaf in Servant Leadership: A
Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.2
Greenleaf, a retired AT&T executive, never claimed that his book is
religious in nature. Yet he presented a new paradigm for business
managers, one that has gained followers in the past thirty years.
As the title implies, Greenleaf wrote that service and an attitude of

John C. Hutchison is Professor of Bible Exposition, Talbot School of Theology, La
Mirada, California.

1 Excellent Christian books on this topic include Ken Blanchard, Servant Leader
(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003); Leighton Ford, Transforming Leadership (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991); Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002); J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, rev. ed. (Chicago:
Moody, 1994); and John R. W. Stott, Basic Christian Leadership (Downers Grove,
IL: InterVarsity, 2006).

2 The twenty-fifth anniversary edition of this book was published by Paulist
Press, Mahwah, New Jersey, in 2002. Earlier versions were copyrighted in 1977 by
Robert K. Greenleaf, and in 1991 by the Robert K. Greenleaf Center. Other books by
Greenleaf are The Power of Servant Leadership (1998), On Becoming a Servant
Leader (1996), Seeker and Servant (1996), and Teacher as Servant (1979). The Robert K. Greenleaf Center has also published Practicing Servant Leadership: Succeeding through Trust, Bravery, and Forgiveness, ed. Larry Spears and Michele Lawrence (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004).

servanthood should be a distinguishing characteristic of corporate
leaders. He observed that when leaders begin by viewing themselves as servants, they create stronger corporations and produce
serving institutions, and they also find greater personal joy in their
leadership roles.

Greenleaf’s concept of leadership was formally expressed in his
writings beginning with “The Leader as Servant,” an essay first
published in 1970. Though he deserves much credit for his application of this concept among corporate leaders, it did not originate
with him. He mentions a number of writers who inspired his development of this model of leadership, but he never mentions Jesus

This concept presented by Jesus over two thousand years ago
has been seen through modern eyes as an unusual approach. In
real life it is rarely practiced. History has shown that left to themselves, most leaders do not follow the principles of servant leadership. This article seeks to investigate the original cultural and historical setting of Jesus’ teachings on the subject. Through an exposition of Mark 10:35–45 (with additional insights from Matthew
20:20–28 and Luke 22:24–30), one can see how difficult it would
have been for Jesus’ original followers to accept servanthood as a
prerequisite for positions of power and leadership in the Lord’s
work. The thesis of this article is that Jesus’ call of His disciples to
this model was one of the most difficult commands for them to understand and obey in their cultural situation. This radical call demanded deep, personal humility, and it violated foundational cultural values related to honor/shame and patronage that were embedded in Jewish and Greco-Roman society. Therefore becoming an
effective leader then, much like today, demanded a transformation
of one’s view of leadership and authority.



The theme of servanthood permeates the Gospel of Mark, as reflected in Jesus’ teachings and actions. The last section of the Gospel (chaps. 11–16) depicts the passion of Christ as the fulfillment of
Isaiah’s suffering servant (Isa. 52:13–53:12), a theme in the teaching of early church leaders (e.g., Philip in Acts 8:30–35). Jesus’ role
as a suffering servant was an expiatory act of atonement for sins,
but it was more. His use of this motif in His teaching modeled for
His followers the need for them to demonstrate servanthood and
sacrifice. In Mark 10:42–45 Jesus challenged His disciples to a
radical and paradoxical form of leadership and showed that He

Servanthood: Jesus’ Countercultural Call to Christian Leaders 55

Himself would provide the ultimate example through His suffering
and death. “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the
Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become
great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be
first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to
be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”3

A number of scholars have discussed the subject of paradox in
Mark’s Gospel.4 Santos considers Mark 8:22–10:52 as “the major
and central section of this Gospel” because of the concentrated references to the authority/servanthood paradox (8:35; 9:35; 10:31,
45).5 Jesus’ words about leadership are paradoxical and would have
sounded absurd when compared with Jewish or Gentile societal
norms. Investigating the following contexts helps highlight this


Mark 8–10. Jesus’ greatest statement about servant leadership in
Mark 10 follows a dispute between two disciples, James and John,
about their potential future positions of honor and leadership. This
immediate context, however, is the culmination of a pattern found
in chapters 8–10 that presents Jesus’ similar words on leadership.
In 8:35, for example, Jesus expressed a paradox: “For whoever
wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me
and for the gospel will save it.” Similarly in 9:35 Jesus said, “If
anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant
of all” (see also 10:31). The paradoxical nature of these statements
alerted Jesus’ disciples that a new order was coming in which leadership and greatness would be viewed in a way much different

3 Unless noted otherwise, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version.

4 Narry F. Santos, “The Paradox of Authority and Servanthood in the Gospel of
Mark,” Bibliotheca Sacra 154 (October–December 1997): 452–60; idem, Slave of All:
The Paradox of Authority and Servanthood in the Gospel of Mark, Journal for the
Study of the New Testament Supplement Series (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic,
2003); James L. Bailey, “Perspectives on the Gospel of Mark,” Currents in Theology
and Mission 12 (1985): 18–19; Robert Fowler, Let the Reader Understand: Reader
Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 184–94;
Philip Davis, “Mark’s Christological Paradox,” Journal for the Study of the New
Testament 35 (1989): 3–18; and Dorothy A. Lee-Pollard, “Powerlessness as Power: A
Key Emphasis in the Gospel of Mark,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 40 (1987):

5 Santos, “The Paradox of Authority and Servanthood in the Gospel of Mark,” 458.

56 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January–March 2009

from what they would normally have expected. The following chart
illustrates a pattern in Jesus’ teaching on greatness. Chapters 8–
10 include significant statements about greatness and leadership,
and all are immediately preceded by a prediction of the suffering

Jesus would soon face.
Jesus’ Predictions Jesus’ Instructions about
of Suffering Humility and Greatness
Mark 8 “He then began to teach “Then he called the crowd to
them that the Son of Man him along with his disciples
must suffer many things and said: ‘If anyone would
and be rejected by the eldcome after me, he must deny
ers, chief priests and teach-himself and take up his cross
ers of the law, and that he and follow me. For whoever
must be killed and after wants to save his life will lose
three days rise again. He it, but whoever loses his life
spoke plainly about this, for me and for the gospel will
and Peter took him aside save it’ ” (8:34–35).
and began to rebuke him”
Mark 9 “He said to them, ‘The Son “Sitting down, Jesus called
of Man is going to be be-the Twelve and said, ‘If anytrayed into the hands of one wants to be first, he must
men. They will kill him, and be the very last, and the serafter three days he will rise.’ vant of all.’ He took a little
But they did not understand child and had him stand
what he meant and were among them. Taking him in
afraid to ask him about it” his arms, he said to them,
(9:31–32). ‘Whoever welcomes one of
these little children in my
name welcomes me; and
whoever welcomes me does
not welcome me but the one
who sent me’” (9:35–37).
Mark 10 “They were on their way up “Jesus called them together
to Jerusalem, with Jesus and said, ‘You know that
leading the way, and the those who are regarded as
disciples were astonished, rulers of the Gentiles lord it
while those who followed over them, and their high
were afraid. Again he took officials exercise authority
the Twelve aside and told over them. Not so with you.
them what was going to Instead, whoever wants to
happen to him. ‘We are go-become great among you
ing up to Jerusalem,’ he must be your servant, and
said, ‘and the Son of Man whoever wants to be first
will be betrayed to the chief must be slave of all. For even

Servanthood: Jesus’ Countercultural Call to Christian Leaders 57

priests and teachers of the the Son of Man did not come
law. They will condemn him to be served, but to serve,
to death and will hand him and to give his life as a ran-
over to the Gentiles, who som for many’ ” (10:42–45).
will mock him and spit on
him, flog him and kill him.
Three days later he will
rise’ ” (10:32–34).

This pattern helps readers understand Mark 10:35–45. The paradox of servant leadership is presented in each case with the accompanying paradox of the suffering and dying Messiah. Even Jesus’
closest followers found this revelation about their Messiah difficult
to accept. In spite of the prophecies of Isaiah 53, the fact that the
Messiah would assume the role of a dying Savior as well as that of
a victorious King was a contradiction that defied human logic. So it
was with Jesus’ teaching about future leaders: Truth that can be
understood only through the paradox of a different value system.

The request of James and John. The request of James and
John for positions of honor, assisted by their mother (Matt. 20:20),
was the occasion for Jesus’ instruction on leadership. Even their
fellow disciples criticized them (Mark 10:41; Matt. 20:24). Many
commentators depict the assertiveness of these two men as personal ambition, vanity, and self-centeredness, and thus completely
out of place in this situation.6 While one must concede that Jesus
ultimately corrected the disciples’ understanding of true greatness,
a number of factors make their request more reasonable than one
would initially think.

First, Jesus had already promised to all His disciples positions
of authority in His messianic kingdom. “Jesus said to them, ‘I tell
you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man
sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit
on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt.
19:28).7 Probably this awareness led the disciples to ask, “Who is

6 John Calvin wrote of this passage, “This narrative contains a bright mirror of
human vanity; it shows that proper and holy zeal is often accompanied by ambition”
(Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979]: 417).
William Barclay wrote, “It tells us of their ambition. They were still thinking of
things in terms of personal prominence and personal reward and personal distinction” (The Gospel of Matthew [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1958], 253 [italics his]).

7 Though the timing of the events in Matthew’s Gospel cannot be determined with
certainty, the text supports this teaching as chronologically prior to the story of
Matthew 20:20–28.

58 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January–March 2009

the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (18:1).8

Second, James and John, sons of Zebedee, along with Simon
Peter, were the “inner circle” of leaders among the disciples. This
position of trust was most evident on the Mount of Transfiguration
just before this event (Matt. 17:1; Mark 9:2; Luke 9:28), and in
Gethsemane shortly thereafter (Matt. 26:37; Mark 14:33). Third,
James and John were probably cousins of Jesus, their mother being
Jesus’ aunt, the sister of Mary.

As just noted, several women apparently are accompanying Jesus and
the Twelve on the journey to Jerusalem. As Jesus gives the prediction
of his impending crisis in Jerusalem, one of those women, the mother
of Zebedee’s sons (see 4:19–20), comes up to Jesus with her sons and,
“kneeling down, asked a favor of him.” This woman has been a faithful follower of Jesus. Later identified as Salome, she is among the
women who attends Jesus at the cross and witnesses the empty tomb
(cf. 27:56; Mark 15:40; 16:1). The best clarification of the listings of
the women identify Salome as the sister of Mary, Jesus’ mother (cf.
John 19:25). So she is Jesus’ aunt, and her sons, James and John, are
his cousins on his mother’s side. As Jesus undertakes his last fateful
trip to Jerusalem, his mother and aunt may have traveled with the
band of disciples.9

Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; and John 19:25 list names of women
who gathered near the cross. Wilkins’s identification of the mother
of the sons of Zebedee as Jesus’ aunt and a faithful follower becomes evident through a comparison of these lists.10 This familial
relationship explains Salome’s request on behalf of her sons (recorded only in Matthew’s Gospel), and it also suggests that the request itself may not have been as inappropriate as one might
think. Jesus, Mary, Salome, James, and John were family, and culturally one might expect this kinship relationship to make a difference when Jesus will rule in His kingdom. In first-century Palestine “the primary role of a woman in a PKG [patrilineal kinship
group] society is to provide male offspring for her husband’s family.”11 Hellerman cites examples from both Jewish history (Rebekah) and Roman society contemporary with Jesus (Livia, wife of

8 On a later occasion this question was asked in the upper room (Luke 22:24).

9 Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan, 2004), 667.

10 Matthew 27:56 refers to this woman as “the mother of Zebedee’s sons,” Mark

15:40 mentions her as “Salome,” and John 19:25 refers to her as Jesus’ mother’s
sister. One can conclude that these refer to the same woman, and therefore that a
familial relationship existed between Jesus and the Zebedee family.
11 Joseph Hellerman, The Ancient Church as Family (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001),

Servanthood: Jesus’ Countercultural Call to Christian Leaders 59

Augustus and mother of Tiberius) that demonstrate a mother’s
personal involvement in the promotion of her son for a position of
honor and blessing.12 Bathsheba’s promotion of her son Solomon to
the aging King David is a similar case in the Old Testament (1
Kings 1:15–17).

Some New Testament critics have claimed that Matthew was
altering Mark’s narrative in order to avoid embarrassing the apostles and to place the “blame” on their mother. Other commentators
have characterized Salome as an overenthusiastic Jewish mother
inappropriately promoting her sons. The facts of the story and an
understanding of kinship relationships in the culture, however, do
not support these views. In both Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts
the source of the inquiry seems to be the two sons (with support
given later by their mother). Jesus addressed His response, and the
other disciples their indignation, toward James and John. The involvement of all three in the request to Jesus can be appropriately
seen as a discussion within a family who knew one another well,
had spent much time together, and cared for each other. Salome’s
request for James and John, “is not pushing her sons into something that they do not want, but together they are demonstrating
their commitment to support Jesus in what lies ahead.”13

The reaction of the other disciples. Jesus’ instruction about
greatness and leadership in this passage is directed to all twelve
disciples, not just James and John. After He responded privately to
the sons of Zebedee, the other disciples heard about the inquiry
and became indignant with them (v. 41). Their disdain did not
stem from their innocence, however. The Gospels list other occasions when the disciples discussed authority and greatness, and
even argued which of them might be the greatest! One of those occasions was in the upper room, a setting in which Jesus displayed
one of His greatest examples of servant leadership by washing His
disciples’ feet.14

James and John’s question seems to be mirroring the thoughts
of all the disciples, which is why Jesus responded to all of them.
Why then were the ten indignant toward the sons of Zebedee? Perhaps it was because the others were not included in the inquiry. Or
more likely, the other disciples were irritated because James and
John were using their familial ties with Jesus to “get the edge” on

12 Ibid., 34–35.
13 Wilkins, Matthew, 667.
14 Discussions about this topic are recorded in Matthew 18:1; Mark 9:33–34; and

Luke 9:46; 22:24.

60 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January–March 2009

acquiring positions in the kingdom, including the influence of their
mother. Jesus then spoke to all twelve disciples, because they were
all missing the point. Jesus addressed their misdirected understanding about leadership and authority and then gave the disciples a new paradigm for measuring greatness as a leader.


To appreciate the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ teaching about
servant leadership one must note the disciples’ Jewish and Greco-
Roman world. This can help Christian leaders today understand
the challenges they face. Though today’s culture differs from that
of first-century Palestine, the difficulties in embracing the servant-
leader paradigm have not changed.


Three aspects of the culture in Jesus’ day have a bearing on this


As De Silva observes, “The culture of the first-century world was
built on the foundational social values of honor and dishonor.”15
Two primary expressions of this value system were in the family
structure (kinship) and the public and private favors that patrons/benefactors bestowed on recipients in society (patronage). De
Silva further explains the importance of honor as a cultural value.

Honor is a dynamic and relational concept. On the one hand, an individual can think of himself or herself as honorable based on his or her
conviction that he or she has embodied those actions and qualities
that the group values as “honorable,” as the marks of a valuable person. This aspect of honor is really “self-respect.” On the other hand,
honor is also the esteem in which a person is held by the group he or
she regards as significant others—it is the recognition by the person’s
group that he or she is a valuable member of that group. In this regard, it is having the respect of others.16

The concepts of kinship, patronage, and honor are useful in understanding several points in the story, including the challenges faced
by Jesus’ disciples.

15 David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 23.

16 Ibid., 25. See also J. G. Peristiany, ed., Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 21–22.

Servanthood: Jesus’ Countercultural Call to Christian Leaders 61

As already noted, the audacity of the Zebedee brothers’ request
of Jesus may likely be explained by the familial relationship of
James and John’s mother to Mary. James, John, and Salome were
faithful followers and traveling companions of Jesus, but they were
also family. Kinship identity carried much influence in both Greco-
Roman and Jewish society. A person’s “merits begin with the merits (or debits) of their lineage, the reputation of their ancestral
house. Greeks and Romans receive a basic identity from their
larger family. . . . This is even more pronounced in Jewish culture.”17 Though the request of James and John makes perfect sense
in kinship circles, it was not well received by the others and was
superseded by Jesus.

Mark 10:35–45 provides a helpful study in this regard. James and
John come to Jesus seeking advancement together: “Grant us to sit,
one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mk 10:37).
They are acting as natural kin ought to do, cooperating with each
other in the quest for honor. It is probably of no importance to them
which is granted the seat at the right hand over the left. Nevertheless, their request is not in keeping with the ethos Jesus seeks to create among all his disciples. The two natural brothers have made a
distinction between themselves and the response of the ten here, who
are “angry with James and John” (Mk 10:41), as well as their previous argument with one another concerning “who was the greatest”
(Mk 9:33–34), shows that all twelve were still thinking in terms of
competition for precedence within the group. Jesus declares that such
an attitude must yield to the kinship values of cooperation and seeking how to be most of service to the brothers and sisters, rather than
seeking how to achieve the greatest precedence and distinction among
them. That is what will make for honor within the Father’s household—acting honorably as family rather than competitively.18

The assertion, “It is not what you know, but whom you know that
counts,” would be an apt description of the value system of patronage in the first-century Jewish and Greco-Roman world. People of
power or wealth often served as patrons or benefactors to others,
giving them access to goods, protection, debt relief, or opportunities
for employment or advancement to an office or position in government. As Clarke notes, the Roman emperor himself took on the role
of a public patron or benefactor, granting political offices to members of society’s elite in exchange for allegiance and absolute loyalty to him as pontifex maximus.19 In many ways the emperor was

17 DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, 158.

18 Ibid., 220–21.

19 Andrew Clarke, Serve the Community of the Church: Christians as Leaders and
Ministers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 29.

62 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January–March 2009

seen as the chief patron of the empire with hundreds of interlocking patron-broker-client relationships beneath him.

Jesus’ instruction about leadership in Mark 10:35–45 warned
the disciples that they were not to function like Gentile rulers. Perhaps James and John, who believed Jesus would rule as the messianic King, were using their kinship relationship to approach Him
as benefactor and request the highest positions next to Him. The
other disciples were angry about this because the two brothers had
gone behind their backs. But Jesus’ instruction was directed to the
group (vv. 42–45), all of them evidently needing to know and follow
His new model of leadership.

The request of James and John must have been disappointing for
Jesus. Their words reflected a belief in Him as their Lord, who they
believed would soon establish His messianic kingdom. But their
request for personal positions of eminence also revealed a limited
perspective of self-centeredness and a failure to grasp something
crucial about the road ahead. Glory and positions of authority
would come only through the road of suffering, sacrifice, and servanthood. Jesus revealed three noteworthy principles about leadership privately to James and John (vv. 38–40) and to all the disciples (vv. 42–45).

Principle 1: Spiritual authority and leadership come only
through the path of suffering and sacrifice (10:38–39). In Jesus’ response, “You don’t know what you are asking” (v. 38), He laid a
foundation for the instruction to follow—authority is entirely different from other views of leadership. His later words to the
Twelve, “Not so with you” (v. 43), affirm the same, that His pattern
of spiritual leadership is different. Jesus had already prefaced this
instruction with three prophetic references to His own suffering in
Jerusalem (8:31–32; 9:31–32; 10:32–34), a connection that had evidently not “registered” with the disciples. Their messianic expectations were undoubtedly like those of any other Palestinian Jew at
that time, focusing on the hope of God’s kingdom to supplant the
domination of the Roman Empire. The image of a suffering Messiah, though predicted in Isaiah 52:13–53:12, was not understood
by them.

When Jesus revealed the imminence of His suffering, He used
the present tense: “You cannot drink the cup I am drinking, can
you, or be baptized with the baptism into which I am being baptized?” (Mark 10:38, author’s translation). “The cup” was a common
Jewish metaphor generally for one’s appointed destiny (Ps. 16:5)
and specifically for joy and blessing (23:5; 116:13) or divine judg

Servanthood: Jesus’ Countercultural Call to Christian Leaders 63

ment against sin (75:7–8; Isa. 51:17–23; Jer. 25:15–28; 49:12; 51:7;
Ezek. 23:31–34; Hab. 2:16; Zech. 12:2). Since Jesus applied “the
cup” uniquely to Himself, it is best taken here as His submission to
the Father’s will in facing the cross (Mark 14:36; John 18:11).20 The
metaphor of baptism is a parallel thought. In the Old Testament,
flood waters picture the condition of someone who is overwhelmed
by calamity (Job 22:11; Ps. 69:2, 15; Isa. 43:2). The word baptivzw
conveys the idea “to identify with,” showing Jesus’ acceptance of
the suffering ahead (cf. Luke 12:50).

Jesus responded to the brave but naïve claim of James and
John (“We can!”) with a prophecy about their future. James would
be the first of the Twelve to be martyred (Acts 12:2), and John
would experience a long exile under Domitian for his Christian
leadership (Rev. 1:9). While Jesus’ “cup” and “baptism” as an atoning sacrifice are unattainable by others, His words in Mark 10:39
teach that those who suffer and are persecuted for His sake are
identified with His sufferings.21

In a culture that valued honor and sought to avoid shame at
all costs, Jesus’ description of the road to leadership was uninviting. Leadership positions, He said, would be gained through the
path of sacrifice and suffering. Being crucified like a common
criminal, considered in first-century Palestine as the most shameful kind of death sentence, became the standard for such sacrifice.
This was a new paradigm indeed.

Principle 2: Spiritual authority and leadership can be sovereignly granted only by God the Father (v. 40). This statement may
have surprised the disciples. Jesus, whom they believed would
reign as Messiah, did not have authority to grant positions of leadership in His kingdom! Put in patron/client terminology from the
Greco-Roman culture, Jesus said He could not grant the wish of the
two brothers because God the Father was the real “patron” in this
situation, and Jesus was the “broker” representing the Father.
Both God the Father and God the Son participate in this plan, with
each one having specific roles. By inference, believers today who
receive positions of spiritual leadership receive them only because

20 Warren W. Wiersbe, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines on the New Testament
(Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1992), 128; John D. Grassmick, “Mark,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton
IL: Victor, 1984; reprint, Colorado Springs: Cook, 1996), 152; Alan Cole, The Gospel
according to St. Mark, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1975), 170; and Wilkins, Matthew, 668.

21 Later Peter wrote that he considered it a privilege “to participate in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Pet. 5:12–16).

64 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January–March 2009

the Father has granted them.

Principle 3: Spiritual authority and leadership are demonstrated through servanthood, selflessness, and sacrifice for others
(vv. 41–45). These verses are the heart of Jesus’ teaching on servant leadership. After a private discussion with James and John,
Jesus addressed the third principle to all the disciples, who evidently had become aware of the request of the sons of Zebedee. Jesus stated that Gentile leaders are not to be viewed as leadership
role models.

Rulers like Caesar, Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa, and other
Roman magistrates were the most powerful human figures of their
day. Gentile rulers, Jesus said, “lord it over” others (v. 42). This
could be rendered “exercise lordship over them,” in keeping with
the next phrase translated “their high officials exercise authority
over them.”22 Jesus’ point focuses more on the motive for power,
and in these simple statements He contrasted His teaching on
greatness with Roman cultural standards of success. Judge gives
insight regarding the model of leadership among “the Gentiles.”

By New Testament times the predominant Stoic school of philosophy
had raised the estimate [of the value of glory] to a very high level, apparently in response to the cult of glory among the Roman nobility. It
was held that the winning of glory was the only adequate reward for
merit in public life, and that, given the doubt as to the state of man
after death, it was the effective assurance of immortality. It therefore
became a prime and admired objective of public figures to enshrine
themselves, by actually defining their own glory, in the undying
memory of posterity. What was more, a man was thought the meaner
for not pursuing this quest for glory. . . . Self-magnification thus became a feature of Hellenic higher education.23

Jewett makes the point that this quest for glory represented the
greatest goal of all public life, and it was often memorialized in
monuments and inscriptions on statues. “Only politicians of totalitarian bent in the modern world would dream of listing their accomplishments and honors in such detail, but in the honor-shame
culture of the Greco-Roman world it was perfectly natural.”24 The
practice of emperors like Augustus “served to stimulate emulation
in others in the quest for honor, which was thought to be su

22 D. A. Carson, “Mark,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 432.

23 E. A. Judge, “The Conflict of Educational Aims in New Testament Thought,”
Journal of Christian Education 9 (1966): 38–39.

24 Robert Jewett, “Paul, Shame, and Honor,” in Paul and the Greco-Roman World,
ed. J. Paul Sampley (New York: Trinity, 2003), 554.

Servanthood: Jesus’ Countercultural Call to Christian Leaders 65

premely virtuous.”25 Hellerman offers this evaluation of the role of
honor in Roman society. “It would be overly simplistic, of course, to
suggest that honor served as the sole force energizing social relations in the ancient world. Human societies are much too complex
to support such reductionism, for other dynamics often come into
play. It is fair to assert, however, that in the solar system of ancient goods and values, honor occupied the place of the sun around
which other priorities orbited. To remove honor and honor-seeking
from the heart of an analysis of the ancient world would therefore
be to render impossible a nuanced understanding of Roman social

Many government leaders aspire to positions of privilege,
power, and authority because these are accepted measurements of
importance. Jesus, however, introduced a completely different
standard. His point is, “Don’t seek after positions of authority for
the recognition or human glory that comes from the position;
rather, consider sacrificial service for others as the true ‘badge’ of
greatness.” This contrast addresses the well-intentioned but misplaced motives of James, John, and the other disciples, who were
seeking positions for their own recognition.

Jesus’ instruction about leadership in these passages is supported by other teachings in His ministry and by the example of
His ministry and death on the cross. Similar statements of His describe this kind of greatness. “Then he called the crowd to him
along with his disciples and said: ‘If anyone would come after me,
he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For
whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life
for me and for the gospel will save it’ ” (Mark 8:34–35; cf. Matt.
16:24–25; Luke 9:23–25). “He took a little child and had him stand
among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever
welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and
whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent
me” (Mark 9:35–37; cf. Matt. 18:3–5; Luke 9:46–48).

Paradoxically greatness in Christ’s kingdom contradicts natural human aspirations and cultural standards. James, John, and
the other disciples were pursuing models of leadership, greatness,
and even service that reflected the value system of their culture.
Anyone would be expected to pursue such positions in both the

25 Ibid., 555.

26 Joseph Hellerman, Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi: Carmen Christi as
Curus Pudorum, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2005), 37.

66 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January–March 2009

Jewish and Greco-Roman world because those cultures valued
honor and sought above all to avoid dishonor. Jesus was asking His
disciples to abandon their way of thinking and to adopt a new
value system that would govern His kingdom.

De Silva, Moxnes, and other writers agree that the concept of
honor in the New Testament world is linked with power. Heller-
man observes, “The Romans were remarkably creative in devising
ways to publicly proclaim and reinforce the social hierarchy. Clothing, occupations, seating at spectacles and banquets, and the legal
system all served to remind the empire’s residents of their respective positions in the pecking order of society. . . . All such practices
served the ultimate design of reinforcing the values of elite society.”27 As Lendon comments, “The honour of a man was inextricably bound up with the office he was holding and the offices he had
held. To gain an office in the Roman world was to enjoy an accretion to one’s honour.”28

Regarding Greco-Roman society Clarke writes, “Graeco-Roman
society was highly stratified, and at all levels of community life
people recognized and elevated the status quo whereby those of
comparatively greater rank and social standing received due deference and honour. Since such principles of leadership permeated
structures at so many different levels of community life, it is reasonable to assume that these dynamics will have impinged significantly on the lives of all in Graeco-Roman society of the first century, whether rich or poor, pagan or Christian.”29

These Gentile values also affected the Jews. “When the dominant, Greco-Roman culture held a group like the Jews in contempt
the effect was a constant pressure on individual Jews to give up
their Jewishness and join in those behaviors that would be greeted
as honorable by the members of the dominant culture.”30 Clarke
comments on the effects of the Gentile culture on the Jewish synagogue.

There was also a significant similarity between the Jewish synagogues of the first century and other institutions in contemporary
Graeco-Roman society, particularly in terms of the ways in which

27 Ibid., 31.

28 J. E. Lendon, Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World
(Oxford: Clarendon, 1997), 181.

29 Clarke, Serve the Community of the Church: Christians as Leaders and Ministers, 146–47.

30 David DeSilva, The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1999), 6.

Servanthood: Jesus’ Countercultural Call to Christian Leaders 67

they honoured their leading and respected figures. Such people were
recognized and honoured for their generosity towards and patronage
of their local Jewish community. Time and again the key figures
within the community were paraded in inscriptions as having made
significant contributions from their own purse to the benefit of the
synagogue. At this significant level, the degree of assimilation, in
outward form at least, between the Jewish and the Graeco-Roman
contexts is remarkable.31

Jesus directed His disciples to pursue the lowly position of a servant (diavkono”) and a slave (dou’lo”). The latter was the most servile term for a slave32 to both Jews and Gentiles. The Greek term
dou’lo” and the Latin servus were associated with the lowest class
of society, even degradation or abuse.

Therefore it was almost impossible for James and John to appreciate the radical nature of Jesus’ words. As the sons of Zebedee,
they were part of a family that had achieved status in Galilee with
a lucrative fishing business. They were evidently well known to the
high priest in Jerusalem (John 18:15–16), which also points up
their social standing in Judea. Taking on the role of a slave would
mean moving from positions of honor to dishonor. Later the apostle
Paul, a prestigious Roman citizen, identified himself as a dou’lo” of
Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:1), as did James, Peter,
and Jude (James 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:1; Jude 1). Jesus confirmed this surprising paradigm by using Himself as a role model. “For even the
Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his
life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Yet as the “Son of Man”
He was viewed as the powerful messianic ruler. “He was given
authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men
of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting
dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will
never be destroyed” (Dan. 7:14).

Jesus then revealed that even His position of leadership and
authority was established through His servanthood. His life would
become a luvtron (a “ransom”) for others. This word, used in the
New Testament only here in Matthew 20:28, means the price paid
to release a slave or captive from bondage. Combined with the
preposition ajnti, this expression communicates the idea of substitution—“instead of” or “in place of.” The terminology of a price paid

31 Clarke, Serve the Community of the Church: Christians as Leaders and Ministers, 146 (italics his). See also W. A. Meeks, The Moral World of the First Christians
(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 6:32–38.

32 Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1966), 1:212.

for a slave again emphasizes the “shame of the cross” (Heb. 12:2) in
a culture that prized honor and despised dishonor.
The most detailed New Testament description of Jesus’ servanthood is in Paul’s Christological reflection in Philippians 2:6–

11. Hellerman’s analysis of this passage in the social context of
Roman Philippi describes the powerful and surprising characterization of Jesus as dou’lo”, humiliated through crucifixion.33 Though
many expositors have appealed to the Suffering Servant motif of
Isaiah 53 as background to Philippians 2:6–11, the Roman cultural
values defining honor and shame shed even more light on this
Christological statement. The “elite” and powerful in Roman society were known for grasping honor through self-assertion, some
claiming to be a god, but Jesus did not even consider equality with
God something to be grasped (v. 6).
In addition, “to ascribe to Jesus the status of doulos (2:7) was
to assign to him a position of greatest opprobrium in the social
world of Paul’s readers.”34 Also Paul’s statement that Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross”

(v. 8) represents Jesus’ greatest cultural humiliation.
Most countercultural vis-à-vis ancient social values is the fact that
Christ humbled Himself. Being humbled was common fare in the ancient world, where males sought to augment their own honor and social status at the expense of the honor and status of their peers. Humbling oneself, on the other hand, was not within the purview of the
values of the dominant culture. The content of Christ’s self-
humiliation, moreover, resulted in his utter degradation, as he underwent the most shameful public humiliation imaginable in the ancient world—death on a Roman cross.35

Though Paul’s description of Christ’s servanthood is one of the
most Christological passages in Scripture, the thrust of his argument rests in the exhortation of verse 5 and the subsequent glorification account in verses 9–11. Believers are to relate to others in
the same way Jesus related to them. Just as God the Father exalted Christ, so He will honor and ultimately exalt believers as

33 Hellerman demonstrates the form and content of Philippians 2:6–8 as a cursus
pudorum, a listing of shameful disgraces that were diametrically opposed to the
Roman concept of greatness. The subsequent exaltation of Christ in verses 9–11
affirms the reaffirmation of Christ’s honor in the Father’s plan (Reconstructing
Honor in Roman Philippi, 129–56).

34 Ibid., 142.

35 Ibid., 143.


Embracing the servanthood paradigm of leadership may be just as
challenging to followers of Jesus today as it was for His earliest
followers. Present-day terms such as “minister,” “deacon,” and
“servant of the Lord” are appropriate for believers in positions of
leadership. Titles, however, are not the point. Practicing this paradigm and carrying out Christian ministry with a servant’s heart
goes against the grain of everything people have been taught by
Western culture. At the heart of sin is self-centeredness and a desire to be seen by others. In addition most models of leadership in
secular settings reward those who are self-promoting and “climbers” on the ladder of success. Many leaders instinctively seek out
positions of control over others and try to avoid showing weakness
or vulnerability. Not surprisingly, this pattern has also influenced
many church leaders.

Many willfully seek power, honor, and positions of control.
Like the disciples, they measure success with titles, one’s position
in an organization, or the size of one’s salary. By contrast Jesus is
the greater example of servanthood and of powerful leadership.
Servanthood does not avoid leadership. Instead it is a different
kind of leadership, one committed to meeting the needs of others.36
And much like first-century slaves, true servant leaders give up
their rights for the sake of others (Phil. 2:3–4). As Sanders writes,
“True greatness, true leadership, is achieved not by reducing men
to one’s service but in giving oneself in selfless service to them. And
this is never done without cost. . . . The true spiritual leader is concerned infinitely more with the service he can render God and his
fellowmen than with the benefits and pleasures he can extract
from life. He aims to put more into life than he takes out of it.”37

This radical model, which goes against the grain of present-
day cultural norms, can be practiced only by the power of the Holy
Spirit. A true servant leader is a Spirit-led leader.

36 This point is skillfully presented in Peter Nelson, “The Flow of Thought in Luke
22:24–27,” Journal for Study of the New Testament (spring 1991): 113–23.
37 J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership (Chicago: Moody, 1967), 13.

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